Monday, November 02, 2009

Pittsburgh councilman pushes north-south city rail system

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It usually takes 20 to 30 minutes to drive to Carnegie Mellon University from the former LTV site in Hazelwood. That commute could take six minutes by train. Pittsburgh Councilman William Peduto has envisioned the train, and planners have deemed it feasible, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

The week of Oct. 27, Rich Feder, of Whitman, Requardt & Associates, showed City Council how a north-south link from Hazelwood to Oakland to Baum-Centre to Lawrenceville would fit into a regional scheme and fuel investment in Hazelwood's industrial corridor.

The diesel-fueled mode would follow existing tracks owned by CSX Transportation, now leased by the Allegheny Valley Railroad. Once in place, it would connect to the Port Authority's busway, bike trails and a high-speed rail connector that Bombardier wants to build from SouthSide Works to Hazelwood. The Urban Redevelopment Authority has agreed to be Bombardier's agent to get state funding.

Feder said the north-south connector would have to fit an intermodal network, have regional consensus, public-private cooperation and a financing plan. The railroad's cooperation could be the biggest hurdle.

"CSXT is a tough negotiator," said Bill Widdoes, project manager for the Regional Industrial Development Corp. of Southwestern Pennsylvania. RIDC is an owning partner, along with four foundations, of the former LTV Hazelwood Works property -- the development prize on the proposed commuter line.

CSXT spokesmen could not be reached for comment.

Peduto said the $81 million price tag puts the project within reach in less than a decade. "If we can get the sign-off from the [Southwest Pennsylvania Commission] -- and I am a commissioner -- and if we can make it a priority plan, that's key. The new transportation act coming through Congress is looking for projects such as this.

"We would be able to find a way to do the local match of $16 million," seeking funding from institutions, foundations and companies, he said. "What we can offer them is assistance in building parking garages on either end as feeders for people on the parkway and Route 28."

Councilman Patrick Dowd said he wants many more opportunities for public comment, something Peduto assured. "This is just the feasibility stage."

As part of his council legacy, this project is dear to Peduto, who has named the train "the Monongaheny Express" and imagines its color scheme the red, yellow and black of Mister Rogers' trolley. He calls it "the most important piece in the puzzle completing a regional rail line system."

"This is an opportunity to connect neighborhoods from river to river," he said.

Oakland, which Mr. Peduto described as "bursting at the seams," is the reason the plan may get momentum, said Feder.

For years, cost and terrain have inhibited east-west transit plans, leaving Oakland high and dry. A plan to serve Oakland from Downtown was abbreviated into a nub -- the North Shore connector, a $538-million project that extends the subway system under the Allegheny River to the North Shore.

Compare that cost to $81 million to link four neighborhoods that are in the midst of, or ripe for, development, said Peduto.

Widdoes said the LTV property -- the largest undeveloped site in the city at 178 acres -- and RIDC's Lawrenceville properties near the Allegheny River are itching for transit connections.

"CMU and UPMC are already invested in Lawrenceville, and so we just think that connecting those dots is crucial, and momentum is key. Lawrenceville has some right now."

On the other end, he said, "developers and institutions have told us that, if and when the transit link is developed between Oakland and Hazelwood, they'll be there."

Negotiations for use of the track will be "long and contentious," he said. "But that is not meant to temper our enthusiasm. This track goes from New Castle to Washington, Pa., through Oakland. Think about that as a commuter line. That has impact" for economic development.

Feder called the "Monongaheny" connector "a reasonably cost-effective project that satisfies the goals."

"The $81 million compares favorably to other cities," he said. Using estimates based on the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission's regional models for population and employment projections 25 years hence, the study compared cost and ridership by rail in Seattle, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Albuquerque, Portland and Nashville. Pittsburgh's cost is the second-lowest, after Nashville's, and its ridership is projected to be more than three times Nashville's.

Jim Richter, executive director of the Hazelwood Initiative, a nonprofit community development corporation, said Hazelwood "would definitely" benefit from a quick transit link to Oakland, but he said he questions the efficiency of heavy rail as a piece of a regional intermodal system.

"With only four stops, it's not real clear how many people would be able to take advantage of this [unless] it's just for the purpose of having park-and-ride lots on the outskirts and going to Oakland or Lawrenceville for employment."

Widdoes said the financial projections assume negotiations go well with the railroad. CSXT "has the right to ask for a lot of money" and concessions, he said. "Hopefully there's an olive branch somewhere. It would sure be nice to know it's coming."

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